Doomed from the Start: Looking Back on Afghanistan, 2001

By Zhao, Jeffrey | Harvard International Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Doomed from the Start: Looking Back on Afghanistan, 2001


Zhao, Jeffrey, Harvard International Review


It has been over a decade since the war in Afghanistan first began and the United States is still feeling consequences from the failures of the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) it deployed. The eventual failure of these efforts in Afghanistan should serve as a harsh warning to the United States forces that these sorts of military strategies are fundamentally flawed. The implications of maintaining these strategies in the future could be an increased decline in United States' hegemony for two reasons--the inability to win a war via COIN-like strategies, and the over commitment and drain these strategies place on the US military.

First, the war in Afghanistan destroyed United State's hegemonic power because US simply could not win--there were too many structural flaws with the US counterinsurgency strategy deployed overseas. Largely, COIN seeks to win over the hearts and minds of the local populace. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, this was nearly impossible; the Pashtun population hated US military presence and maintained a very xenophobic attitude towards the soldiers' presence. The assumption that the US military would be able to win over the local populace was fundamentally flawed. However, V counterinsurgency is a nation-building strategy and in order to win the war, it is also necessary to win over the hearts and minds. Though counterinsurgency efforts may have seen some limited success in Iraq, Afghanistan was a completely different country with a different social and ethnic situation. There are hidden complexities that exist within the structure of Afghanistan like tribal rivalry, ethnic conflict, and opposition to modernization that confound our ability to manipulate the hearts and minds of the Pashtun people.

Second, tactical gains were inevitably outweighed by greater strategic losses. Statements from military officials and media coverage of the war in Afghanistan are largely dominated by reports of strategic gains and losses from regions like Zaire, Helmand, Marja, and other Afghan provinces. However, Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at the American Security project, indicates in a damning statement that "statements by Obama and Petraeus are now typical fare from the U.S. government: They offer glowing optimism about recent military gains, but make no mention of larger strategic obstacles that imperil success in Afghanistan." Cohen continues by saying that "without tangible improvements in creating a capable and effective Afghan security force; without a competent and legitimate central government able to provide good governance to its people; without a choking off of the supply of arms and fighters from across the border in Pakistan, tactical gains cannot be sustained." Cohen mentions many structural problems that indicate that even if the United States did see spikes of stability or success, the overall war effort was still doomed from the beginning: the incompetent training of the Afghan Security Force, which means that the only way to achieve mission goals in Afghanistan or create long-term stability in the region would be to create a impractical permanent military presence. …

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